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The "Reconstruction" of Tolkien's Children of Hurin:

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Children of Hurin is scheduled to be published next spring, according to this Boston Globe article (hat tip to my Amherst College classmate David Lobron). Because Tolkien, who died in 1973, never finished the book, the published version is based on a manuscript "reconstructed" from Tolkien's notes by the author's son Christopher Tolkien. Some scholars are critical of this approach:

``I think that word `reconstructed' is a warning sign," said William Pritchard, an English professor at Amherst College and biographer of poets Robert Frost and Randall Jarrell. ``You don't want a `reconstruction' by a member of the family of something a genius wrote. It induces skepticism in the wary reader."

I took a class with Professor Pritchard as an undergraduate at Amherst, and he clearly knows far more about literature than I do. Nonetheless, I think he is wrong in this instance. Christopher Tolkien is not just any "member of the family," but is a major expert on his father's work who has devoted much of the last thirty years to studying it. Back in 1977, he prepared the published version of his father's The Silmarillion, which provides the mythological background to The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings. Although The Silmarillion is not as impressive a work as The Lord of the Rings, it is still extremely interesting, and few Tolkien fans or scholars would argue that we would be better off without it. There is every reason to expect that Christopher Tolkien will do an equally good job of putting together The Children of Hurin, and that he will do his best to carry out his father's intentions.

The result will not be as good a book as might have emerged had J.R.R. Tolkien lived to finish it himself. But it will still reflect Tolkien's style and ideas, and will almost certainly be a lot better than nothing.

Lev:
Given what he seems to have had to work with, what the junior Tolkien did sounds more like construction than reconstruction.
But so what. I wonder how many manuscripts get published without any editing.

If someone wants "the real thing", then they can learn finnish and read the Kalevala thing.
10.8.2006 4:03am
o' connuh j.:
I concur. The Silmarillion provides such a rich historical tapestry to Tolkien's world that it is hard to imagine how we would NOT have been the poorer for it had it never been published. Indeed, my sense is that when it comes to Tolkien's oeuvre, it is canon. As such, Pritchard's skepticism is unwarranted. I for one am looking forward to The Children of Hurin.
10.8.2006 5:05am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
I've never understood this obsession with who wrote the book. Sure, it's interesting historically but either the book is good or it isn't regardless of who wrote it. Obviously having the option of reading Christopher's reconstruction is better than reading Tolkein's original and if you decide to read it you certainly shouldn't evaluate the book any differently because someone else wrote it. Sure, if you're trying to decide if it is worth your time this might push you to one side or the other but shouldn't be worth more than a good or bad book review.

The obsession with who authored a work has always made me very skeptical that the supposed 'great books' really reflect literary value. If tomorrow I wrote a new Shakespearian play it would almost certainly not recieve any literary recognition and be dismissed as uninspired copycating. However, if the exact same text was discovered and thought to be an original Shakespeare play it would recieve widespread literary recognition.


In short it seems to me that much of what we call 'literary merit' is really the merit of the author. We respect early old works and watch old movies because they required great genuis to write at the time even though they would be much easier to produce today. This is fine if one is trying to figure out which authors to regard as great but not if one is trying to figure out which books are great or important for people to read.

Reaction like this one just reenforce my skepticism. If what was really being evaluated was the merit of the work then we should be just as prepared to regard a modern reedit of Tolkien's work as better than the original as we would be to regarding Tolkien's own reedit as superior.

I'd love to hear a response explaining how it can really be that we choose what books to read based on intrinsic literary merit but Shakespeare or Tolkien is never minorly reedited and counted as improved. In disciplines like math or physics we understand that great genius doesn't always get every detail in the best form and happily read modern improvements on the original papers and proofs. Why aren't we doing the same in literature?
10.8.2006 5:09am
A Berman (mail):
"The result will not be as good a book as might have emerged had J.R.R. Tolkien lived to finish it himself"?

Tolkein's stories are terrific and the underlying themes are universal. But the fact is his books could have used an editor. The word 'turgid' doesn't do his work justice. I bet his son puts out a far better book than his father could have.
10.8.2006 6:20am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Logicnazi: We don't only read literature for the acontextual pleasure of reading the specific work.

First, as you suggest, we value the author, but in a better way than you say. It's not just that "Shakespeare was a genius for his time, because it was harder to do this back then, so we should respect him for that, but nonetheless modern playwrights can improve on him." It's also that "Shakespeare produced a body of work that some people think is coherent, so the more Shakespeare you read, the more of an insight you get into an impressive coherent world view, like for instance seeing how a theme developed in one work shows up in another."

Sometimes this is bound up with our interest in the person's life and personality, to the extent we know it through biography (which is why people quarrel over who wrote Shakespeare's works). Sometimes it's just the pleasure of reading a coherent personality's oeuvre, because -- and this is more true with some authors than with others -- the whole corpus of work might usefully be viewed as a single whole rather than as the collection of different works that it appears to be.

This is why we'd feel cheated if someone passed off a Shakespeare-style play as Shakespeare's. It might still be great, and I agree that we should ultimately consider the work on its merits, but it should just be labeled as "By Logicnazi in the style of Shakespeare" rather than "By Shakespeare." And because quality is in part contextual in the way I described above, the Shakespeare play may be considered "better" in the sense of fitting into a whole like a chapter in a book, enriching our experience of the other plays, etc., in a way that your identical play wouldn't be.

Second, one might read historical works -- this goes for Shakespeare, not Tolkien -- for a sense of the historical period. If you want to know how people thought in the Renaissance, you want to read a lot of Renaissance writing, look at their art and architecture, listen to their music, etc. (I do this for the Middle Ages, myself.) So for this purpose a play by Shakespeare is "better" than a knock-off play written by you. This (like the previous example) just goes to show that "better" means a lot of things. Mainly it's defined by what we're trying to get out of the work, i.e., "better at what?" A work can be totally crappy in the acontextual aesthetic sense but still be great at giving us a sense of how people lived in the Renaissance -- or, as above, in giving us a sense of how the person who wrote Hamlet thought.

I don't disagree with the idea of your comment above, though. Often we're only interested in a book because of its acontextual aesthetic value. We don't care about the author or the historical period, we just want to read a good story. Then knowing the author is important as a first cut -- if we like the author from other books, that's a signal as to the quality of his next book -- but once the book is released and has been reviewed, that first signal is less necessary. (Still, it could continue to be an important signal for you, because there's a limited number of book reviews out there and you might not trust contemporary reviewers.) Like in the sciences, we should refine old works and make them better -- which is why we have not only a lot of great actual Shakespeare productions, like Branagh's versions, but also a lot of "loosed based" works, from West Side Story to Ran to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
10.8.2006 10:43am
djw13:
Sascha Volokh wrote:

"Second, one might read historical works -- this goes for Shakespeare, not Tolkien -- for a sense of the historical period."

Why not Tolkien as well? Not only are his works informed by a particular period and style of scholarship, but they are backgrounded by a number of historical circumstances: the First World War, 20th century English Catholicism, Industrialisation versus rural preservation, and possibly even the imperialist conflict over the Orange Free State in which he was born.
10.8.2006 11:41am
PeterH:

Some scholars are critical of his approach.


Unless the quote is out of context, the guy seems to be hugely missing the point. This isn't a situation where someone has decided to do a rewrite on a miraculously found completed manuscript.

Of course it is not the book Tolkien would have written. But it isn't a choice between Tolkien's version and his son's. It is a choice between NO version and Christopher Tolkien's version. People who don't like it shouldn't read it. What is the controversy?

The only other possible choice would be to give a variety of authors access to the material and then compare what they come up with, and choose the "best" one for publication. But who would write something that huge without the serious expectation of publication, and who would get to choose? Yikes.
10.8.2006 11:54am
Jake (Guest):

If tomorrow I wrote a new Shakespearian play it would almost certainly not recieve any literary recognition and be dismissed as uninspired copycating. However, if the exact same text was discovered and thought to be an original Shakespeare play it would recieve widespread literary recognition.

It's seems a little much to me to claim that you are capable of writing a play that could be mistaken for a Shakespeare original.
10.8.2006 1:07pm
NathanD (mail):
The Silmarillion is as readable as it is, in large part, due to the efforts of Guy Gavriel Kay. His stylistic touches are all over the book. While the story and the world aren't his, I suspect a large portion of the words are.

As a side note, Guy Gavriel Kay is one of 2 authors who were, implicitly at least, promised they could write in Middle Earth, only to have that permission revoked once the Tolkien estate got what they wanted out of them.
10.8.2006 2:35pm
Sean O'Hara (mail):

The Silmarillion is as readable as it is, in large part, due to the efforts of Guy Gavriel Kay. His stylistic touches are all over the book. While the story and the world aren't his, I suspect a large portion of the words are.


They aren't. 99% of the Silmarillion is edited from various drafts J.R.R. Tolkien left behind (and he left a lot -- the reason he only published a handful of books during his life time is he liked to spend decades revising the same material over and over). The one notable exception is the ruin of Doriath, where Tolkien's latest notes included ideas not found in any of the existing manuscripts. Christopher and Kay ended up having to write the section based on the notes, something that Christopher has since said he regrets.

In addition to The Silmarillion, Christopher has published a twelve volume History of Middle Earth, which contains many of Tolkien's early drafts and notes, which you can compare to the material in The Silmarillion. (It also contains early versions of Lord of the Rings where Strider was a hobbit called Trotter.)
10.8.2006 3:07pm
Michael Yuri:
Some of the criticism may be due to the way Christopher Tolkien controls access to his father's unpublished papers.

"It is a choice between NO version and Christopher Tolkien's version."

But there are other options: publication of J.R.R. Tolkien's unedited manuscripts, commentary and analysis on the unpublished papers by various Tolkien scholars, and maybe even multiple reconstructed versions by different authors/scholars. But Christopher Tolkien has decided that none of these options are acceptable.
10.8.2006 3:35pm
Ilya Somin:
Some of the criticism may be due to the way Christopher Tolkien controls access to his father's unpublished papers.

"It is a choice between NO version and Christopher Tolkien's version."

But there are other options: publication of J.R.R. Tolkien's unedited manuscripts, commentary and analysis on the unpublished papers by various Tolkien scholars, and maybe even multiple reconstructed versions by different authors/scholars. But Christopher Tolkien has decided that none of these options are acceptable.


Christopher Tolkien has in fact published many volumes of his father's unedited manuscripts, including several versions of the story told in Children of Hurin. See, for example, the version published in the Lost Tales.

He has also given Tolkien scholars such as Tom Shippey and Humphrey Carpenter access to his father's papers, and many academic analyses have been published as a result.
10.8.2006 3:47pm
Michael Yuri:
Well, I stand corrected as far as the Children of Hurin is concerned.

Christopher Tolkien has had a reputation for tightly controlling both access to his father's papers and material published about them. See, for example, this article.

Apparently that's not the case regarding this story (and for all I know, it may not be a fair portrayal of Christopher Tolkien's actions in general). But this reputation might still color people's reactions to this latest news.
10.8.2006 4:30pm
Ilya Somin:
Christopher Tolkien has had a reputation for tightly controlling both access to his father's papers and material published about them. See, for example, this article.

I agree that CT may sometimes err on the side of giving too little access to his father's papers, though it's hard to know for sure without detailed investigation of the reasons why he refused access in particular cases. I should not have implied that his record in that regard is above criticism.

At the same time, it is also true that a good many scholars have gotten access and that CT has published large quantities of his father's previously unpublished writings. CT is not a perfect guardian of his father's legacy (as witness his somewhat unreasonable hostility to the Lord of the Rings movies), but I think he does a reasonably good job overall.
10.8.2006 4:45pm
Lev:
Damn. I seem to have misplaced my copy of Bored of the Rings, being the adventures of Dildo and Frito Bugger, and Frito's manservant Spam.
10.8.2006 7:20pm
Jay Myers:
The reason The Silmarillion reads as well as it does is that J.R.R.Tolkien began writing that material in 1917. For the most part, CT only had to pick between well-developed versions of the material and then edit it into a unified whole. Of course, one reason it reads less well than LotR is because he spent fifty years re-writing and re-editing the material.

The language in the announcement of this new book struck me as a bit odd. Based on a manuscript "reconstructed" from notes. Did a manuscript previously exist and if so, what happened it? I somehow doubt this is truly a "reconstruction". It seems more likely to me that CT is taking some of his father's notes and attempting to cobble together a book which will be heavily edited to render somewhat readable. I don't know why he wants to do this but it's his right as long as the other heirs consent. I doubt I'll waste my time on what is essentially fan fiction.

Getting off-target, the most common academic complaint I see against Tolkien's literary style is that he was light on specific descriptive details. It is up to the reader to supply those from their own imagination and if you can't do that then the setting becomes rather plain and drab. Is this really a less legitimate approach than Stephen King's using brand names to force readers to supply a vivid level of detail from their experience? Remember, Tolkien was writing fantasy and couldn't count on his readers having experience of the things he was writing about. The biggest problem he runs into is that a lot more literature professors have experience than have imagination.
10.8.2006 8:07pm
Kent G. Budge (mail):
The Silmarillion is certainly a more difficult work than Lord of the Rings. I'm not sure I'd say it's less impressive. In many respects, it is a much deeper work. The older I get, the more likely I am to re-read The Silmarillion rather than Lord of the Rings.

But then, de gustibus non disputandem est.
10.8.2006 11:35pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Sasha,

Those are some good points and I agree that these are all reasons to enjoy reading literature by specific people. Though there is presumably a difference between enjoyment and literary value.

However, most of these things have nothing to do with the work actually being written by the individual in question. If one is trying to get a sense of renaissance writing or the period reading an outlier piece of literature actually written in the period does one little good (though it is interesting historically that it exists). Additionally reading literature written by a renaissance scholar who wrote in the modern day might be signficantly better at conveying the sense of the period to the modern reader (for instance they are aware of what the modern reader won't know and might wrongly assume).

Also while your points about coherence and a greater whole explain why we care more about reading many works that fit into a coherent whole they do nothing to explain why would we treat the exact same text differently if it was known to be written by me or by Shakespeare. I agree that before anyone had read it one would have a greater prior probability that Shakespeare would fit in with other Shakespeare works but if this is the sort of thing we can appreciate in the works presumably the experts should just read the books and decide whether or not the body of works is more coherent with or without the just discovered text.

In other words I agree with your point that context is important but I don't think that solves the problem. We should still be able to just read the work in the context of Shakespeare's other works and decide in that context on its merits regardless of who wrote it.

As for the point about modifications I agree that R&G and similar works are good and interesting but I would rather describe them as works inspired by Shakespeare. Unless we adopt the unlikely belief that Shakespeare was the perfect writer presumably his plays might have been slightly better and fit into a more coherent whole if we just changed an ending or two and shuffled around a bit of dialog. Yet people aren't buying penguin classic editions of Shakespeare with modified ending by so and so.

--

I realize that a great part of the reason people actually read these works and read them in their original is because of their cultural significance. People read Shakespeare to a great extent because so many other people have read Shakespeare. Ultimately though this raises great questions about the role these works should have in our culture and our education system. If other works could serve just as well if we were just to allow them to occupy that role maybe we should be more receptive of that possibility.

I guess I am somewhat agreeing with you that ultimately context matters greatly. But I would even take it farther and say that aesthetic merit is largely dependent on the society or culture it is being evaluated in and the notion of a timeless work is pretty much bunk.

Ultimately I fear that by mixing our respect for the author with our respect for the work itself and continuing to venerate books just because those are the books that are venerated we undermine the role of art and literature in our society. Undoubtedly Shakespeare boasts impressive word play and drama but to a large extent it deals with issues that are of only limited relevance to our modern day and age and made difficult to access by the differences in language.

I feel that this sort of undue reverence for things by old respected artists denies generations of students the vibrant relevant role that literature could play in their lives. Certainly Shakespeare will always be interesting for the reasons you describe but it's place as the cornerstone of literature curriculums should be replaced by something relevant and accesible to this time and culture. Something that is to our culture as Shakespeare was to the culture of his day would be a good start.

--

I guess another way to state my point is that as works age the motivations for being interested in them change. When they are new they talk about current issues and are easily related to by the audience. As they age the reasons for interest in them shift towards the historical but we unfortunatly try and treat them as if they had the same relevance today as they did when they were authored. Just as their are good historical reasons to go back and read Newton's principia but it isn't read by your average calculus student so too should classic books be read by literature students but something more relevant should be read by the general population.

I guess I got a bit offtopic.
10.9.2006 7:20am
Tom R (mail):
If there is also a Brian Tolkien out there who is working on releasing a "Chapterhouse Hurin" or, worse, "PRelude to Hurin", may the Valar turn aside his path.

By the way, why did the chicken cross the road?

JRR Tolkien:

Presently to the great Road they again came. Broad it was, and paved also, and in dust covered; and upon the dust could be seen tracks of feet, many of them.

"Ho!" said Gimli. "Whether these marks be left by Man or Dwarf, Elf or Halfling, beast or fowl, I know not. Yet this much will I warrant; it was no fell beast. For many servants has the Dark Lord; yet the Road they do not cross."

"Can you discern not more amidst these signs?" answered him Legolas. "These marks are as of the feet of a certain bird, one bred unto the farmyard, him that is named among us Círnol Sândas. Have you none such fowl in the Shire also?"

"Yes, but to-day we call them chickens ," replied Frodo, shivering miserably. "O! How I should love to sup again upon some nice roast chicken! But why did it cross the Road, here?"

"Of such things we do not speak," Aragorn told him sternly.
10.9.2006 10:30am
Anderson (mail) (www):
Somin's argument re: Christopher Tolkien would also demonstrate that Brian Herbert can write great Dune sequels, which he can't.

But I must commend C. Tolkien for having better judgment than many LOTR fans who swooned over the Peter Jackson abominations -- C.T. said there wouldn't be a Jackson adaptation of The Hobbit while he had anything to say about it. Thank Ilúvatar.
10.9.2006 12:21pm
Peter Wimsey:
I guess another way to state my point is that as works age the motivations for being interested in them change. When they are new they talk about current issues and are easily related to by the audience. As they age the reasons for interest in them shift towards the historical but we unfortunatly try and treat them as if they had the same relevance today as they did when they were authored. Just as their are good historical reasons to go back and read Newton's principia but it isn't read by your average calculus student so too should classic books be read by literature students but something more relevant should be read by the general population.



Comparing a fictional work of literature with a non-fictional work of science is sort of, well, silly. No matter how well written, scientific works are outdated when something else provides a better explanation for physical phenomena; literature doesn't have an external referent like that at all.

I'm also hard put to figure out what would replace Shakespeare - and it seems to me that the Bard isn't really interfering much with anyone reading anything else. As a non-English major, I think I read Macbeth in HS and maybe Hamlet in college. Two required plays in the course of 8 years leaves a lot of time for reading other works, and there were a lot more required readings in those courses.

I tend to think that students interested in reading will be able to find relevant works on their own.
10.9.2006 3:38pm
Ilya Somin:
Somin's argument re: Christopher Tolkien would also demonstrate that Brian Herbert can write great Dune sequels, which he can't.

Yes, Brian Herbert's Dune sequels are lame. However, I never claimed that children of great writers can always write good sequels to their parents' works. CT is a much better writer than Brian Herbert, and moreover he's not writing a sequel to his father's work at all. He's reorganizing his father's notes into a work that is publishable.
10.9.2006 5:06pm
Dan Hamilton:

Getting off-target, the most common academic complaint I see against Tolkien's literary style is that he was light on specific descriptive details


You say that as if it is a bad thing.

The students today wade through the "Great Descriptive details" with bored dread. They KNOW what a Dickens slum looks like, etc. Where years ago people didn't have the images and needed the detailded descriptions today they don't. It is one of the reasons that so few people really read the Great Books. The skim past the discriptions.

Be honest. The last time you read one of the Great Books with Great Descriptions did you read all the descriptions or skim some or all of them?
10.9.2006 6:47pm
Jay Myers:

Getting off-target, the most common academic complaint I see against Tolkien's literary style is that he was light on specific descriptive details

You say that as if it is a bad thing.

No, I didn't. If you had read past that sentence you would have seen me argue against that position. Man, forget about skimming through "Great Books", you can't even read an entire blog comment!
10.10.2006 1:41am